The last few bipolar months of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship are ending

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President Obama during his visit to Alaska, which focused on climate change. Source: White House Archives.

Two years ago in Iqaluit, Canada’s “heart of the Arctic,” the U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the region’s leading intergovernmental organization. The U.S. sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the event, continuing the recent tradition of the country sending its highest ranking diplomat.

Tomorrow at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will continue that tradition. Other than that, however, there’s a world of difference under the hood of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship.

The U.S. agenda for its chairmanship, which rotates every two years between the eight Arctic Council member states, was “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities.” The three themes within this vision involved improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities, Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and addressing the impacts of climate change. If we measure the U.S. by its own yardstick – in other words, the goals in set out to accomplish two years ago – it’s probably done the most in the second and third areas. The U.S. presided over the establishment of the U.S. Arctic Coast Guard Forum in October 2015, which has helped to maintain dialogue between Russia and the West in the Arctic. This is probably one area in which the previous and current administrations in the White House agree on its importance. At a time when tensions remain high between Russia and the West, the U.S. chairmanship has continued to emphasize a unified Arctic. Its theme of “One Arctic” has fostered strong levels of cooperation at sea and on land in the North and continued the project of region-building in the Arctic, helping member states to see shared priorities and concerns.

But it’s in the area of climate change where the U.S. chairmanship has been arguably the most successful in galvanizing action — and where the current administration has been trying to reverse a lot of the progress made. That’s why in Fairbanks tomorrow, it will be interesting to watch what remarks Tillerson delivers. Will he downplay the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area, which were all made by his boss’ predecessor, President Barack Obama, in order to focus on Trump’s goals of economic development, America First and climate last?

If he does that, this will be a disservice to the many accomplishments made by the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship with regard to climate change. Just a few months after the U.S. took over from Canada, in September 2015, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. He traveled to the North Slope town of Kotzebue and flew over the village of Kivalina, whose shoreline is eroding away. When Obama tweeted, he directly linked his love for Alaska to his passion for the “fight on climate change” – a fight that Trump clearly does not want to keep up. (Ominously, the video that was included is “no longer available”.) He even wrote a blog post on Medium describing how touched he was by his visit.

The U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship also focused on promoting Arctic science. It targeted reducing short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, which exacerbates Arctic climate change by covering up snow that would otherwise reflect away sunlight, supported Arctic climate adaptation and resilience efforts, and launched an initiative to create a two-meter digital elevation model (DEM) of the Arctic, which should be finished by this summer. The White House also hosted the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016, inviting researchers from around the world to discuss their work. Capping off all these scientific efforts, the U.S. and Russia co-chaired efforts to draft what will become the third-ever binding agreement under the Arctic Council once it is signed in Fairbanks tomorrow: the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

It is difficult to imagine Tillerson, who has stated in writing that he does not believe that fossil fuels are a “key” factor behind climate change, to laud the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area. Instead, he may choose to focus on the chairmanships’ work in promoting economic development, which have not nearly been as monumental. Canada, the previous Arctic Council chair, focused much more on this issue, as underscored by its establishment of the Arctic Economic Council. Already, the Trump administration has tried to make some nominal headway in this area. On April 28, he signed an executive order attempting to reverse the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which some Alaskans cheered. However, in so doing, Trump also controversially eliminated a tribal advisory council established under the Obama administration to provide recommendations and guidance on maritime activities in the Bering Sea.

So even if Tillerson attempts to shift a little bit of the U.S. chairmanship’s focus away from climate change and towards industry and development, this has to be taken with a big grain of salt. As I wrote previously, among other cuts, Trump’s proposed budget threatens to eliminate the Essential Air Service, the Economic Development Administration, and the Denali Commission, all of which provide vital services to rural and Native Alaskans. While the current administration is pro-development in Alaska, it’s hardly the type of sustainable, local development that is needed across the Arctic today.

As Finland takes over, it will renew the Arctic Council’s focus on climate change, returning to the organization’s early roots of being focused on environmental issues when it was established 20 years ago. The first sentence on the Finnish chairmanship’s website states how the country “emphasizes the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change,” which Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of.

Outgoing Chair of the U.S. Senior Arctic Official David Balton said yesterday via teleconference, “The U.S. will remain engaged in the work that the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout.” The question, however, is really what level that engagement will be. With the White House deleting scientific data on climate change and trying to stimulate the very industries that will exacerbate black carbon emissions and Arctic warming like oil and coal, Finland and all other Arctic Council stakeholders would be wise to be wary.

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And so the Arctic Council chairmanship goes back to Finland, where food from its Arctic region, Lapland, can be easily found in the capital of Helsinki. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The Maine doorway to the Arctic

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Maine: Only a hop, skip, and jump away from the North Pole. In yellow and green are shipping routes. It is clear that while Maine is not close to any single dense shipping route like Alaska and the North Pacific Great Circle route, it is instead near a wide variety of trans-Atlantic routes.

A few weeks ago, I took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to the Arctic. Or at least that’s how some officials in Maine might describe my destination, which was the coastal of Portland, population 66,000. That’s because Maine is increasingly looking northeast for political and economic support rather than southwest to the rest of the United States. This new direction in outlook largely draws inspiration from Icelandic shipping company Eimskip’s relocation in 2013 of its North American port of call from Norfolk, Virginia over 1,000 kilometers up the Atlantic seaboard to Portland, Maine’s largest city.

Yet Maine’s connection to the Arctic is a lot more than three years old. My reason for traveling to the United States’ northeasternmost state was to give a talk at Bowdoin, a picturesque liberal arts college thirty minutes north of Portland in the town of Brunswick. For over 150 years, Bowdoin has held a connection to the Arctic through its students and professors. In 1860, a professor from Bowdoin led a group of students to Labrador and West Greenland – two areas that are just a hop, skip, and jump between Maine and the North Pole, as depicted by the above map. Bringing the glory of Arctic exploration at the time to Maine, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two Bowdoin graduates, Robert Peary and Donald MacMillan, led numerous expeditions to the Arctic both together and separately. In 1909, Peary and his team, including four Inuit men and African-American Matthew Henson, claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole after originally setting off from New York City the summer before.

Kennebec_Arctic_HuntingWhile Peary’s claim has been disputed for over one hundred years (the first incontrovertible conquest of the North Pole did not occur until 1928, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen flew over it in an airship), he, MacMillan, and their supporters established a tradition of Mainers in the Arctic that is today being revived academically, economically, and politically. For instance, Maine’s Senator Angus King is a founding co-chair of the U.S. Senate’s Arctic Caucus along with Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska. Maine’s North Atlantic Development Office, referred to as MENADO, was formed in 2013 to enhance trade and investment between Maine and the North Atlantic region and to build the state’s Arctic policy. These efforts also connect with New England’s historic connection to the Arctic’s resources, like during the nineteenth century when Arctic whaling expeditions would set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts – the former whaling capital of the world. And in a 1912 issue of hunting and fishing magazine Forest and Stream, an ad for an Arctic hunting vessel for charter out of Boston appeared under an ad for canoes from Waterville, Maine. 

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A Doorway to the Arctic in Maine.

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A remnant of a Grape-Nut box left behind by MacMillan’s expedition team in Etah, Greenland a century ago.

Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, one of two Arctic-only museums in the United States, celebrates the accomplishments of the two eponymous individuals and others, such as Henson, who is often left out of historical accounts of Arctic exploration. One current exhibit, “A Glimmer on the Polar Sea: The Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917,” discusses MacMillan’s effort to try to find a fabled landmass north of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, which ultimately proved to be a mirage. A Bowdoin team leading an archaeological dig in Etah, Greenland, an abandoned settlement that once was a starting point for expeditions northward, revealed an empty package of Grape-Nuts that MacMillan had brought for the Crocker Land Expedition. Grape-Nuts, as I learned, have traditionally been popular in Maine and New England, with some restaurants even serving “Grape-Nut pudding.” Post Grape-Nuts was so excited about the discovery of Grape-Nuts, which are probably rarer than gold nuggets in the Arctic, that they sponsored the reception for the exhibit. Not to miss a marketing opportunity, they insisted that two dishes made out of Grape-Nuts be served.

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The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College.

Given its hardiness, crunchiness, and caloric density, this New England staple could be considered a food fit for Arctic explorers in line with pemmican and walrus blubber. In fact, Grape-Nuts have also fueled expeditions to Antarctica and Mt. Everest and America’s World War II operations in the tropics. Since I would bet that nobody in the history of mankind has ever eaten Grape-Nuts without spilling a few of these miniscule crunchy nuggets around them, I can only imagine future archaeologists looking for remnants of this breakfast cereal (which also never seems to go stale) in the Arctic and beyond.

After my visit to Bowdoin, I traveled back down to Portland. There, I toured Eimskip’s port facilities, met with a professor from the University of Southern Maine working on Arctic law of the sea issues, and visited the offices of Ramboll – the world’s leading consultancy in the Arctic. Portland, a hip town with a working waterfront and supposedly the most restaurants per capita in the United States, also might have perhaps the most Arctic-engaged people per capita in the nation outside of Alaska.

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Looking up towards Exchange Street in Portland, Maine’s Old Port District.

This fall, since the U.S. is currently chair of the Arctic Council, Portland will host numerous Arctic events building off of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Official meeting, which will take place from October 4-6. With the Arctic Circle conference – “the world’s largest global assembly on the Arctic” – starting the day afterwards in Reykjavik, participants will be able to easily catch the five-hour direct flight from Boston’s Airport, less than two hours away from Portland, to Iceland.

This ease of connection between Maine and northern places like Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland underscores Maine’s relative proximity to the Arctic, even if its actual inclusion within the region is up for debate. Folks in Alaska are grumbling about having to fly all the way to Maine for the Arctic Council events. In reality, Alaska is more isolated than Maine in relation to where a lot of the current Arctic development is happening: in the North Atlantic rather than the North Pacific. For all of the Canadians, Europeans, and Russians based in their nation’s capitals and centers of power who have to travel to the U.S. this year for Arctic Council meetings, Maine is closer than Alaska. It’s more or less business as usual, then, with the future of the Arctic being decided in the south.

In my next post, I’ll write more about Eimskip’s operations in Portland, Maine – a state which I heard one Icelander refer to as being like “Iceland that speaks English.”

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Or you could take this Polar Express train stationed in Portland, Maine to the Arctic.

Year in Review: The Arctic’s Top Stories in 2015

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U.S. President Barack Obama in Alaska with TV star and adventurer Bear Grylls. Photo: White House Instagram.

2015 was a momentous year for the Arctic. The U.S., which Rob Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary, once called a “reluctant Arctic power,” made a splash in the North. The U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada in April, while in August, President Barack Obama traveled to Alaska and became the first sitting president to visit the Arctic. In the 49th state, Shell’s exploratory oil well in the Chukchi Sea came up dry, prompting the corporation’s exit from the Arctic offshore for the time being. With all the excitement surrounding the American Arctic, especially from the perspective of the States, it’s easy to forget that there were a number of other important developments in the region in 2015, too, from elections in Canada to mining in Greenland.

As December drew to a close, I spoke with Eilis Quinn, a journalist with Radio Canada International and manager of Eye on the Arctic, for a radio show that will broadcast on January 8. We discussed one word to summarize events in 2015 in the Arctic, the three biggest stories to unfold in the region, the most underreported story, and three things to watch out for in the Arctic in 2016. The radio interview is available to stream online, while a longer written version is below.

The Arctic in 2015: “Hopeful”

One word to describe the Arctic in 2015 might be “hopeful.” During President Obama’s trip to Alaska, he said in an interview with Rolling Stone“I don’t want to get paralyzed by the magnitude of this thing. I’m a big believer that imagination can solve problems.” These lines almost sound like they could have come out of his book, The Audacity of Hope. The belief that hope and imagination can solve climate change is only one part of the equation, though. The other part has to come from a serendipitous combination of action and inaction: the world should act to put in place a global climate agreement, while it should probably refrain from oil drilling in the Arctic. In light of the minor success of COP21 in Paris and Shell’s withdrawal from the Arctic, the word “hopeful” might just be an apt word to use to describe northern developments last year.

In other hopeful news, relative peace continued between Russia and the West in the Arctic, minus a tense moment or two between Canada and Russia, the two territorial giants in the region. This perhaps promises that the Arctic will continue to remain a region of unique cooperation even as tensions persist between Russia and the West in Crimea and the Middle East.

The Arctic’s three biggest stories

  • US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council
    • The U.S. took over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada under the banner of  One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, Responses.” Its agenda is more climate-focused than Canada’s, but it is also continuing Canadian initiatives like the Arctic Economic Council. Related to the U.S. takeover, Obama visited the Alaskan Arctic as mentioned above. In 2016, look for more activities in the U.S. Arctic as the country goes into what will be its only full year as Arctic Council chair. One event to watch might be the Senior Arctic Officials meeting in October in Portland, Maine, a state that is increasingly playing its Arctic card.
  • Shell’s retreat from the Alaskan offshore 
    • After sinking $7 billion into Alaska, Shell announced that its well had come up dry in September. This turn of events was hugely disappointing to many in Alaska, where 90% of the state’s discretionary spending is funded by oil revenues. Senator Lisa Murkowski called it “a very sad day for Alaska.” Environmentalists, however, were heartened by Shell’s retreat from the Arctic. To cap off a bad year for Big Oil in the Arctic, Obama cancelled oil leases for 2016 and 2017,with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell citing “current market conditions and low industry interest.”
  • COP 21
    • After 20 years of UN climate negotiations, in December in Paris, world leaders succeeded in signing an agreement on global climate change. The 195 countries who signed the universal and binding agreement will now endeavor to limit warming to 2°C and possibly even make an effort to keep average global warming below 1.5°C.
    • The disheartening outcome of this, however, is that the agreement consists of a lot of potentially empty promises, with no enforcement mechanisms to ensure that countries reduce emissions. Even if global warming is miraculously limited to 2°C, the Arctic still won’t return to pre-industrial environmental conditions anytime soon due. Positive feedback cycles that are already in place will likely cause sea ice to continue to melt and temperatures to rise.

One underreported story

Justin Trudeau speaking with Chief Mike Archie of the Canim Lake Band, a First Nations group from British Columbia, in 2013. Flickr/Photo: Carl Archie, used under Creative Commons license.

Justin Trudeau speaking with Chief Mike Archie of the Canim Lake Band, a First Nations group from British Columbia, in 2013. Flickr/Photo: Carl Archie, used under Creative Commons license.

  • The implications of Justin Trudeau’s election as Prime Minister for the Canadian Arctic 
    • Aside from a couple of pieces such as this one in the Pacific Standard (and also, plug, my own), the press didn’t write too much about what Justin Trudeau’s election means for the Canadian Arctic. This is probably because his Arctic policy is still relatively undeveloped.
    • Similar to what former Prime Minister Stephen Harper probably would have done, Trudeau encouraged bolstering NATO’s presence in the Arctic when speaking on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Unlike Harper, however, Trudeau is paying more attention to social welfare issues in the Canadian Arctic, such as by vowing to increase the Northern tax break. Trudeau, perhaps less of an Arctic stuntman than Harper, criticized his “annual photo-op” during a campaign stop in Nunavut. As a result, it’s unclear if Trudeau will continue Harper’s highly visible pro-sovereignty agenda up North. He may do so, but perhaps in a less muscular manner that’s more focused on Arctic people rather than Arctic projects.
    • In the next couple of years, we’ll see some of Harper’s projects finally come to fruition like the opening of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk all-weather highway. Time will tell whether Trudeau will undertake any big-ticket Arctic infrastructure projects of his own.

Three things to watch for in the Arctic in 2016

  • Mining in Greenland
    • Two years ago, the Greenlandic parliament overturned the ban on uranium mining. This has paved the way for mining companies to come in and express interest, but operations are only now beginning to pick up speed. Canadian mining company True North Gems is beginning to extract ore and waste rock at its ruby and pink sapphire deposit in SW Greenland, while Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) will commence a mining license application for its Kvanefjeld project, which holds rare earth minerals and uranium deposits.
  • The price of oil
    • In September 2015, Goldman Sachs analysts predicted that the price of oil could fall to $20 a barrel. Today, NYMEX Crude sat at $37, already a big drop from around $50 at the end of 2014, when people were already being cautious about the future of Arctic oil. A continued drop in prices could seriously jeopardize the economic feasibility of Norway and Russia’s continued push northward into Arctic offshore oil fields. In offshore northern Norway, Eni’s delay-plagued Goliat field will only have its first delivery next year – not a day too soon for a company that would have likely have preferred to come on-stream years ago.
  • Climate change
    • Climate change continued to heat up the Arctic, where average land temperatures from October 2014 – September 2015 were the warmest since 1900. Sea ice extent in 2015 was the fourth lowest on record. El Niño, which is mostly discussed in terms of its effects at more southern latitudes like in California, will affect the Arctic though, too. As Andrea Thompson writes at Climate Central, the warm weather phenomenon has already prevented Antarctic sea ice from growing even more than it has done in past years. Later on this year in the Northern Hemisphere, El Niño could warm the oceans and possibly trigger increased melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
    • Another issue to keep an eye this year in the Arctic concerns ocean acidification. Though most discussion of climate change focuses on the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean soaks up 30-40% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. The Arctic Ocean soaks up a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide because the greenhouse gas is more soluble in colder waters. The resulting chemical changes in the world’s oceans could devastate phytoplankton populations, and decline of these little sea creatures could generate knock-on effects on marine ecosystems in the Arctic and elsewhere.
There's oil under them 'bergs... Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC License.

Watching the ice go by – or away? Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC License.

So, that was 2015 in the Arctic: hopeful year for climate activists and scientists, mining interests in Greenland, liberals in Canada and the U.S. – and not so hopeful for oil companies.

Listen to my full interview with Eilis Quinn of Radio Canada International here.